By mid July it was high time to put my summer training to the test. As chance would have it, my dad had notified me he’d be visiting Colorado with two friends to race the Kendall Mountain Run in Silverton on July 18th. He suggested I race as well–I’d get to see a new part of Colorado, eat good food and drink good beer (for free), race against some serious competition, and (most importantly!) get to spend time with my father. As it turned out, my Dad injured his hamstring a few weeks before the trip and had to back out of his racing plans. He and Roger, one of his long-time colleagues, planned instead to rent mountain bikes and cheer Mark and me on during the race. Mark ran cross country and track with my father at Humboldt State University and recently returned to running with a vengeance, winning his age group in nearly every race he enters.
As its name implies, Kendall Mountain Run is a 12 mile foot race that ascends the 13,066′ peak of Kendall Mountain in Silverton, CO. It begins at 9,300′ among the myriad tourist shops in town but soon thereafter climbs a brutal 3500′ over about five miles of jeep road. Racers proceed to scramble up 350′ of steep scree to the summit, turn around, and do the same in reverse. My strategy was fairly simple: don’t blow up on the climb and run like hell all the way down. This was to be only my 2nd mountain race, but with a month of training at 9500′ I felt this inexperience played to my advantage. I felt no pressure and was quite relaxed the morning of the race. It would be just like one of my training runs in Gothic, but with more suffering. Despite this nonchalance, I stayed true to my college racing habits (are you reading this, Coach Keith?) and decided to set a goal for myself. Top 10 seemed an admirable place to shoot for.
The start of the race was rather predictable. The lead pack high-tailed it through the streets of Silverton until reaching the start of the climb, at which point the honesty demanded by lung capacity and leg strength started to thin the field. Sage Canaday, Timmy Parr, and Andrew Benford pulled away from the pack, and I was left somewhere just outside of tenth place. I recognized world-champion mountain runner Stevie Kremer in front of me. Okay, new plan: try to stick with Stevie. She knows what to do.
This turned out to be a very solid plan. For most of the climb I stayed 20 meters or so behind Stevie and two other guys she was close to. Once we got above tree line, however, I slowly started to close the gap. As the road steepened, Stevie and I dropped the two guys one at a time and continued grinding, neck and neck. Eventually I had to resort to power hiking, while Stevie maintained an inexorable trot. The length of my legs was probably the only reason Stevie didn’t drop me then and there.
With little more than a mile left to the top I realized I still had some gas in the tank and decided to kick it up a notch. Stevie offered gracious words of support as I set my eyes on the next competitor and accelerated with a barely-perceptible burst of speed one might observe in a tortoise drag race.
At the summit I paused for a millisecond to consider taking in my surroundings, but of all things, beauty sure as heck wasn’t going to slow me down. That’s what training runs are for. I turned around and started picking my way down the steep scramble section, somewhat cautiously at first. Someone knocked a rock down from above. Luckily it went way wide of anyone’s path. Then, Luke Ott flew by me, moving down the scree like a mad man. Screw it, I thought, and I took after him in what was mostly just a controlled fall.
Back on the jeep road, I opened up my stride and relished the fact that gravity was now fully on my side. All I had to do was move my legs as fast as possible and not fall on my face. Easier said than done, I suppose. While turning a corner and attempting to pass someone on the inside, I tripped and bashed my knee on the rocky bank. A little blood flowed, but damage was minimal. After that I knew the most important thing was to focus on my foot placement and on picking up my heels.
It occurs to me now that running downhill as fast as possible is as close humans can get to flying without any special equipment. The next 5ish miles proceeded to fly by in a pounding blur of taxing, yet enjoyable 5:40 splits. Towards the end of the descent I passed Arthur Degraw to take up 5th place. ‘Yes!’ I thought. ‘This is going very well.’ Famous last words–the downside of running as fast as I could all the way down the mountain was my legs now felt like bricks and I still had 3/4 of a mile of flat road to the finish. It took all my willpower to maintain a 7 minute-per-mile pace, but it wasn’t enough. In the last 200 meters, Arthur Degraw passed me back. I tried to muster a kick but there was nothing in the tank. Heartbreaker! I crossed the line in 1:50:03, 10 seconds behind Arthur and in 6th place overall.
My dismay vanished as I collapsed in the grass and endorphins washed over me. I realized I had paced myself almost perfectly (if there is such a thing) on the climb and had also made up a lot of ground on the descent, regardless of getting passed at the very end. A few minutes later, Stevie crossed the finish line in 1:55:27, 10th overall and setting the female course record. Good work, Stevie! For the record, Sage Canaday won the race in 1:38:53, missing Joe Gray’s 2014 record by 3’54”.
I was proud to have held my own on a grueling course against a field dotted with elite runners. In the hours and days following the race, my mind filled with visions of future speed and glory, and I felt inspired to keep working hard. This was still just the beginning. I was hungry for more.